Greatest Spurs team yet dethrones Heat in Finals
SAN ANTONIO -- Comparing championships is like comparing children, the saying goes, but perhaps this is the right time to make an exception. You see, the Spurs called their fifth title the sweetest, and it might have been their best, too.
A 104-87 Game 5 victory over Miami on Sunday sewed up San Antonio's fifth championship since 1999 and ended the Heat's two-year reign atop the NBA. As LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh enter the offseason facing free agency questions, their Finals counterparts can take a moment to savor one of the most impressive showings in league history.
San Antonio's 2013-14 season had it all: domination, revenge, recognition and records, and it all unfolded in quintessential Spurs fashion.
"This is the best Spurs championship team that [coach Gregg Popovich] has coached," said Brent Barry, who won titles with San Antonio in 2005 and 2007. "It's not a question. This is as complete a team as there is and has been. They can stack up against champions from any era."
The most impressive attribute of the Spurs season? They started out playing excellent basketball, and they continually raised their game. San Antonio won a league-best 62 games in the regular season, highlighted by an impressive 19-game winning streak, and its .756 winning percentage was the best of San Antonio's five title teams.
It also posted a league-leading +8.1 net rating, a truly impressive figure, but one that was topped by previous Spurs championship teams. What none of the previous four Spurs teams could match is how this group turned it on in the postseason. San Antonio completed the postseason with a 16-7 record, accruing a +11.6 net rating, the highest mark posted by an NBA champion since the 2001 Lakers. It did so with the NBA's No. 1 postseason offense and No. 2 defense, a balance of excellence matched by none of the previous Spurs title-winning teams.
Not only were these Spurs numbers more impressive, but also they came against better competition. Consider: San Antonio went through Dirk Nowitzki, LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to get this ring. That group includes the consensus top two players in the league in James and Durant, who together have won five of the last six MVP awards.
This year's Spurs left overwhelmed opponents humbled and out of answers. It took just two games (both blowouts) for Blazers coach Terry Stotts to dub the Spurs championship material. Thunder coach Scott Brooks repeatedly admitted that the Spurs had "kicked our butts." Heat coach Erik Spoelstra readily admitted that his team wasn't prepared for how well the Spurs played in a Game 4 blowout, even though Miami entered that contest with its season hanging in the balance.
"You have to give them credit," Spoelstra said after Game 5. "They played exquisite basketball."
What's more, San Antonio eliminated three teams that won at least 54 games during the regular season, and it unseated a two-time defending champion in the Heat. Only one previous Spurs championship team prevailed over a reigning champion -- the 2005 Spurs, who beat the 2004 title-winning Pistons -- and that Detroit team, while well-balanced, didn't have the firepower or reputation to go toe-to-toe with these Heat.
None of the Spurs' other runs carry quite this level of prestige. The 1999 Spurs won in a lockout-shortened season against the eighth-seeded Knicks. The 2003 Spurs beat a Nets core that never won a title. The 2007 Spurs beat the Cavaliers, led by a 22-year-old James who wasn't yet the force that he is today.
Let's get one thing clear about San Antonio's 2014 postseason run: after some first-round stumbles against Dallas, the Spurs were an absolute buzzsaw. They won an NBA-record 12 postseason games by at least 15 or more points, including three such wins against the Heat. In fact, San Antonio's +70 point differential in the Finals was the largest in league history.
"They played the best basketball I've ever seen," said Chris Bosh, who has played in four straight Finals with the Heat.
James concurred: "I would agree [with Bosh]. They were the much better team. That's how team basketball should be played. It's selfless. Guys move, cut, pass, you've got a shot, you take it. It's all for the team, and it's never about the individual."
That's exactly how this group will be remembered: as the Spursiest of Spurs teams, an international, brilliantly scouted squad that shared playing time, the ball, the credit, and the desire to atone for their loss to the Heat in the 2013 Finals. San Antonio's roster included players from eight countries and unprecedented balance with no single player averaging 30-plus minutes per game during the season. The Spurs led the NBA in bench scoring in the regular season and the playoffs, and they did it with a less-heralded players. The ball just kept on moving, the players just kept getting open, and the shots just kept going in.
"There were some possessions that I ... felt so proud," Spurs guard Manu Ginobili said. "Sometimes I felt like saying, 'Wow, this is sweet.' It was really fun to play like this. It was really fun to watch when I was on the bench. I think we played a really high level. We shared the ball maybe as never before."
Only one Spur, Tim Duncan, was selected in the lottery, and a number of second-round picks -- Ginobili, Danny Green and Patty Mills -- played huge roles. They also did it with a reloaded roster, as the only Spurs players who were on the 2007 team were Duncan, Parker and Ginobili, of course.
The Spurs never skipped a beat, not even when their lone All-Star, Parker, didn't play in the second half of a closeout victory over the Blazers, didn't play in the second half of a closeout victory over the Thunder, and went 1-for-11 through three quarters of their closeout victory over the Heat. At least four Spurs players were in the discussion for Finals MVP -- Parker, Duncan, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw -- and the first three members of that group received "M-V-P" chants from their home crowd during the postseason.
To this point, we've only touched on the unassailable numbers and accomplishments. If the conversation is opened up to emotional storylines, we could be here until 2014-15.
The 38-year-old Duncan became the first starting player to win championships in three different decades, snagging his fifth ring 15 years after his first and a full seven years since his most recent one.
"[This title] is sweeter than any other, whether it be because of the timeframe, because I'm coming towards the end of my career, because I can have these two [children] here and really remember it and enjoy the experience. All of those things make it that much more special."
"It's amazing to think about having done this five times," he said. "The kind of company I'm in, the people who have had such amazing careers and having had the ability to have one, and for the stretch, and the span between them. To still be in a situation where we can win or I can win another championship is just an amazing blessing, and it's not taken lightly."
Popovich and GM R.C. Buford were also recognized with Coach of the Year and Executive of the Year honors, respectively, getting the appropriate credit for their masterpiece. The Big Three of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili set an NBA record for most playoff victories for a trio, while Duncan also set an NBA record for most postseason minutes played. The 22-year-old Leonard, whose father was murdered in 2008, captured a title and the Finals MVP award on Father's Day.
Most of all, after letting the 2013 Finals slip through their grasp, the Spurs made no mistake whatsoever this time around. There would be no Game 6 collapse or Game 7 defeat this time, because they needed just five games to torch the Heat.
"Last year's loss was devastating," Popovich said, concluding his press conference so that he could rejoin the celebrations. "A day didn't go [this season] by where I didn't think about Game 6. For the group to have the fortitude that they showed to get back to this spot, I think it speaks volumes about how they're constituted and what kind of fiber they have."
Duncan added: "We reacted the right way. We got great leadership from the top in Pop, who came back absolutely fired up and ready to go, and to push us this far and this hard and to come out with the championship is amazing."
Now, when the highlight reels play Ray Allen's corner three from Game 6, or James' dagger jumper from Game 7, history will remember that the Spurs were emboldened, and not broken, by those heroics. These Spurs won a title, and rewrote their story.
"We felt like we had the trophy, that we were touching it, and it slipped away," Ginobili said. "It was a tough summer. We all felt guilty. We all felt that we let teammates down, but we worked hard. ... We got to this spot, and we didn't let it go."
And for the Spurs fans who suffered through that crushing defeat, Sunday night was ecstasy. The honking car horns rang out for hours downtown after the victory, flags whipping from the window and chants of "Go Spurs Go" intermixing with whining vuvuzelas. Several longtime media members covering the team said they had never heard the AT&T Center as loud as it was Sunday. It certainly was deafening.
"[This] is the sweetest one because it's just unbelievable to win seven years ago and to be so close last year, it was very cruel, but that's the beauty of sport," Parker said, sharing the crowd's pure excitement. "Sometimes it's tough. And sometimes it can be beautiful like today, because it shows a lot of character of the team to take a loss and to come back the following year and to win the whole thing. ...
"I would change nothing. It makes it even better the fact that we had to go through that and we had to go through a tough loss in Game 6 and Game 7, and to be able to come back. It just makes the journey even more worth it."
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